Dear Olivia – Uplifting Reads Featuring Female Friendship or Family

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Illustration from  Little Women , volume II, by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Illustration from Little Women, volume II, by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Olivia. I wonder if you could recommend some books for a girl going through devastating, unexpected heartbreak? I'm looking for comforting, uplifting reads (fiction or non-fiction) preferably not *about* heartbreak or romance but maybe books focusing on female friendship or family or anything to soothe the soul and help make the world a tad brighter. x

First of all, I’m so sorry for your heartbreak. Love can be so difficult to navigate in the pursuit of happiness. Lauren and Lee beautifully touched on the topic a while back, and I highly recommend reading what they had to say. I’d also recommend checking out my “Eight Gentler Women’s Novels” reading list for peaceful reads and my “Spring Reading List” from last week as there are some novels on each of those that fit your description.

Really, I just want to sit you down with the Anne of Green Gables books because truly, they’re so calming and do female friendship and family so well, and putting this list together, I was a bit… surprised to remember how hard it is to find books that do so in a way that’s uplifting and calming without simultaneously being overwhelmingly gut-wrenching and tragic. I have read some great books about mother/daughter relationships or even about female mentorship over the past year – The Female Persuasion, The Mothers, What We Lose, New People to name the most obvious – but I can’t with good conscience call them soothing under these circumstances.

In the meantime, a few favorites… 

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott – I know, but how can this not be the first book on such a list? Revisiting old favorites, especially childhood favorites, is the most soothing thing I know when it comes to reading, and there’s nothing better than revisiting the March family. Taking place during the American Civil War in Massachusetts, the novel centers around four sisters in their teens (and their mother – Marmee) and follows them into adulthood. A lifelong favorite of mine, it never fails to make me feel better. (Bonus: Many screen adaptations of the novel have been made, and they’re all calming. That being said, my loyalty lies with the 1995 adaptation. It will make you cry, but it will be worth it.)

The Shuttle, Frances Hodgson Burnett – This isn’t a totally drama-free read, but it is still a calming one and features an important sister relationship. Taking place at the turn-of-the-century, it deals with the transatlantic marriages between wealthy American heiresses and impoverished British aristocracy. One sister enters into a toxic such marriage, and her younger sister fights to get her back. Her sister’s romance isn’t the central plot, and I feel like the novel deals in hope rather than despair. A Little Princess for adults.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen – Okay, I just recommended this in my Spring Reading List, but you can’t not include the Dashwoods when discussing female friendship or sisterhood! In my book, it surpasses all of Austen’s novels on this score! What I love about Austen though is that she got that balance where she deals in a reality that includes tragedy and difficult circumstances, but still manages to make things nice and sweet without being cloying. She knows how to do a happy ending, and so her books are forever soothing.

The Women’s Room, Marilyn French – This isn’t a light read by any means and I’m a bit hesitant to include it because of that, but The Women’s Room is such an important feminist classic when it comes to dealing with female friendship and support! Because it’s a 1970s feminist classic at that, it might actually be cathartic to read following heartbreak. Be warned though that it is heavy.

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger – A novel about twin sisters and literally all about female friendship and family, Her Fearful Symmetry follows two girls who uproot their lives in Chicago and move to London after inheriting their aunt’s flat. A slightly eery read, the novel is still fun and is remembered as calming in my mind because it guided me out of one of my first waves of burn out.

Walking on the Ceiling, Ayşegül Savaş –  A book about memory and a mother/daughter relationship, Walking on the Ceiling isn’t a fluffy read either (it deals with a daughter moving on with her life by moving to Paris after her mother’s death), but it is a peaceful one that I found very calming to read. It includes zero active romance.

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay – Maybe not “uplifting” in the way that you’d requested, but Difficult Women is a fantastic collection of short stories about “difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature” – touching on tragedy, love, violence, romance, independence, etc. It’s extremely difficult to read at times (an apt title indeed), but also cathartically uplifting in the end because Gay touches on so much of the unsaid. 

Anything by Nora Ephron – Nora Ephron’s writing is a balm to the soul. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend her one novel, Heartburn, in this case because it’s specifically about heartbreak (or rather, divorce) but it is an extremely funny novel if you want to treat your heart with some humor (and a few recipes). I would, no matter what, recommend picking up any of her essays because reading her writing for an hour or two will always, always help. She may not always write about female friendships, but I feel like she captures so many feelings that are dismissed as being too silly or womanly so well that I feel less alone when I read her work. I remember once someone commented on how she hates “those girly writers, like Nora Ephron” and it made me love Ephron even more. Definitely a balm – a smart, soothing balm for the soul.

Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She has multiple literature degrees and is dedicated to reading her way through the world while trying to stay as calm as possible.